Refugees stuck in Greece find comfort in books

A refugee at a library set up on the premises of an international non-governmental organisation hosting Syrian and Afghan women and children, in central Athens on Aug 17, 2017.
A refugee at a library set up on the premises of an international non-governmental organisation hosting Syrian and Afghan women and children, in central Athens on Aug 17, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

ATHENS (AFP) - The brightly coloured minivan that pulls into Athens' food market, drawing a group of refugees around it, is not carrying something edible.

The contents - hundreds of books - are there to satisfy a different hunger.

For tens of thousands of refugees stuck in Greece for the past two years after European states shut their borders in rapid succession, survival is no longer an issue.

Instead, boredom and creeping despair about their future are their new enemies as they wait for months, even years, for their applications to relocate elsewhere in Europe to be processed.

Now, at least two separate initiatives have emerged to help refugees fill the long hours of their day.

One of them is Echo Refugee Library - a minivan carrying more than 1,000 books that does a weekly round of refugee camps in the greater Athens area, plus poorer districts of the capital where many refugees live in UN-rented flats.

The goal of the initiative is to "make culture accessible to all", said project coordinator Esther Ten Zijthoff.

The books - in English, Greek, French, Arabic, Kurdish and Farsi - have been provided by benefactors in Greece, Belgium, Britain and Lebanon or purchased with money donated online.

In another part of the city centre, a similar initiative draws Syrian and Afghan refugees to the offices of We Need Books, a volunteer group formed last year that also gives language classes in Arabic and French.

We Need Books has the largest collection of Farsi books in Athens, including more than 150 sent directly from Afghanistan, said co-founder Ioanna Nissiriou.

Here, the most popular book is Arabian Nights.

The sole copy in Farsi, delivered in June, is already in tatters, she noted with pleasure.